Civil Wars


Love of country is a memory now
Though it was nothing more than love of place:
    Thurston County, the Puget Sound,
    The Totem Grill, the hamburger steak.
Imbiow and Murphy bent the grass
In the evergreen shadows of the seaside park
    Where one could catch an eyeful of
    Mothballed battleships,
    Grey, rusted, silent graves,
    Hull numerals ghostly white.
Imbiow and Murphy rolled around
Like tigers in ferocious play.
Perhaps it was a burgeoning romance
Or hatreds building a superstructure.
Independence Day, July fourth.
Patriots, aghast, looked on.


    Blue sky and flags, sun-bright balloons
    Followed the pearly sky of a lysergic dawn.
Guitars, banjos, fiddles ensued,
Some Foggy Mountain Breakdown tune
That wagon-wheeled north and west of the source
    In the way that music stayed at home
    And followed after a gold rush.
It seemed the people had majesty,
Baseballs arcing through the air,
Empire, maintenance, the setting off
Of poppers, snappers, sizzling sparklers,
Imbiow and Murphy in their clinch
Drunk on wine and ‘Dasein’
Or Heidegger in a pinch, that business about
Being there. Apocalyptic smooches? Tongues in throats?
No doubt, there was in a Cold War
Another crisis in the works.


How else and to what end has time passed by
From Jamestown, say, made, as it was,
    Of cypress wood and paranoia,
    Famine and mosquitos in a swamp,
    To this moment that silicon underwrites,
    And now ‘you’ve got mail’, and it’s as if
    We breathe for reasons other
    Than to let gas out and let gas in?
Murphy joined with a living organism,
History, that is, which is to say
The anarchist is in the earth,
    Though he managed to spook the Pentagon
    If not thrice-greatest Hermes,
    As he got himself discharged
    But got no rarified metal from lead.
Imbiow, so I like to think,
Black-eyed Brooklynite,
Poetess and wanderer,
    Still drives a pale green Merc,
    Plato and six-pack in the trunk.
She will have seen it all: the sack of Thebes,
Rome’s humiliation, Aleppo’s ruin,
Shakespeare knocked off his perch,
    Thomas Jefferson not quite as pretty
    As he was to generations of school children.

Even so, time was, and time remains,
Skirmishes galore, epic campaigns,
Our nature changeless: generous, kind, sadistic,
    Lethal, cheap, tedious. Our hedge against heaven, it’s our excuse
    To crack our jokes and reap the whirlwind,
    To revere sweet clover and bird flight,
    Saturday night smack-downs and Total Divas
    And Buster Keaton on a flickering screen.

It’s the fevers of mind, the revised intent
In search of lost magical purity,
Rhetoric of radical change that will attend
Each and every eleventh hour getting on for zero.
And before Saigon was left behind and shock and awe came to break
In the sky over Baghdad between the rivers
Like a bursting sac letting loose peekaboo eggs
    Bearing random death, there was the Confederacy, and it wanted
    Its renewal, the Union juggernaut shaping up,
    Lincoln’s second inaugural pending . . . .


Pennsylvania Avenue was an ocean of mud
On the fourth day of March in the year ‘65,
The capitol dome finally built, crowning cupola
    For the grand idea: the republic a house divided
    (As per Lincoln), no love lost between the parts.
Or else the varied carols I hear, or Whitman’s parlance
For a country
    Under a star-swirl of roiling cosmos,
    Put to combustion, was sabotaged
    By hunger and exhaustion, overruled by grinding carnage.
    (Ever since, the pasteboard shine of a house of cards
    Absorbs the endless seepage of blood . . . . )

It’s all been said in a thousand books,
How it was that Lincoln took a bullet,

Lee having thrown in the towel
At the Appomattox Courthouse
This side of no surrender, this side of dying
A thousand deaths. Just that these bits float through me like
So much star scatter, so much Dr Pepper fizz,
So much grade school primer dust,
So many free-floating recollections,

How Imbiow came to enlist me in her campaign of designs,
Sticky storm night, Olympia,—
How, earlier, she’d removed my shirt
And removed hers, women in the room unhinged,
Men meditative, Gershwin and Jefferson Airplane
Our ballroom star glitter, lightning tremoring in the window,—
    And then to bed, the boy in me on shaky ground,
    Imbiow pleading her fear of thunder,
    And would I hold her, or so I recall,—

And, as I do my remembering, sound waves span out from a church bell,
Holiday underway, Quebec tropical
This far north of the compromise
That was slavers and Free Soilers,—
    This far removed from Atlanta burning
    As preceded Lincoln’s second go-round,
    The speech he would give pearling around
    A nicety: with malice toward none.


Years flitted off like so many butterflies
Through a shadow-black forest, and memory is a rickety bridge,
No solid footing and yet, who knows
What might tease a tear from an eye?
The memory of Imbiow the great flirt?
The librarian who ate Ritalin on the job
And treated me to daiquiri-rich lunches
     And said: “Love fouled by the let-down that comes
    Of shabby, unloving desire – you bet it leads to lawyers”?


Then one is seventy, and the fool resumes
Where the fool left off, that is, with a fool’s belief
    That a poem will do more than art,
    One’s belief in art egregious,
    One’s brain a child’s brain still,
Falling shy of mature comprehension
Of the whys and wherefores, Christian fascists on your right,
Social justice warriors all the more incensed
As they tell you that human nature, that thing in your head,
Is a treatable disease, Havana ripe for the taking now, Castro gone,
Artificial sweeteners stuffed in every kiss.

And like a man with wares to hawk
Commandeering the auction block,
The spoils of war everyone’s largesse
Until the attack dogs are unleashed in peace
    So as to secure the law, it’s in me even now to flog
    Humdrum goods, humanism’s relics, measured lines
    With which to accompany time’s mule trains,
    The commissary stores of event and drift and hell,
    And put the personages in the cheap seats to sleep.
Is it finished, at last, the poetry game,
Music and thought one and the same,
The hilarity of “Euripides, Eumenides” and
Evil events from evil causes spring?
Because it looks like the beginning on a return flight,
Idyll freighted here from the ancient world,
    That tree in the yard out back
    Heavy with its gleaming cherries,
    Arcady item of which poets once sang
    And sing no longer, not since
    The glory days of the Marshall Plan,
    Fords on the Kurfürstendamm,—

Buckley and Vidal spatting on ABC,
Priest and scientist locked in their quarrel,
Squirrels gnawing cherries as they rush
From branch to branch, starlings in on the feast,
Sparrows in steep-banked flight, robins lilting
On the ground, at stake how tell a tale of living,
    How interpret the stars, how best eat a fig
    And proceed, love undiminished.